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Inside Calgary's delicious Italian Christmas cookie factory
Lots of people bake during the holiday season. But few take it as seriously as Chevonne Miller-Centini, co-owner of Centini restaurant on Stephen Avenue. Every year, for a couple of months before Christmas, she turns the popular Italian restaurant’s kitchens into a serious cookie factory. Thousands and thousands of cookies, from a binder of 60 different recipes. “People get so excited when they can pick a cookie,” she says. “Especially men. They love any cookie with sprinkles on it.”
Not a sprinkle fan? There are plenty of others to choose from. Bussola, the S-shaped cookies from Venice, are always a hit. So are the tiny thumbprint cookies, filled with raspberry or apricot jam. Then there are little rolled ones filled with ground walnuts. And crescent moons, made from grappa, cinnamon, orange peel and honey. Still others are dipped in white chocolate and sprinkles. Or dark chocolate and 24-karat gold dust.
If it’s rich, filled with butter and sugar, and comes from Italy, she has probably tried making it. For more than a decade, Miller-Centini has been collecting recipes from across Italy. A few are based on family favourites she’s gleaned over the years from her Italian mother-in-law. Others come from the Internet, cookbooks, other Italian nonnas and, well, anyone who has a story to share. “I even wrote down one on an airplane once,” Miller-Centini recalls. “The woman beside me was Italian, and I literally wrote her recipe down while she talked.” Saving recipes has become an obsession for Miller-Centini, who noticed a few years ago that younger Italian women aren’t interested in making the rich and laborious recipes. “I don’t know of a culture that has a larger repertoire of cookies,” Miller-Centini says. “But women are working hard these days. They just don’t have the time to bake.”
For a while in her life, Miller-Centini didn’t have the time either. Born and raised on a Charolais cattle ranch near Lacombe, she moved to Montreal to study journalism and then spent 10 years in the publishing industry. From there, she switched to the TV and film industry, working for a company that produced the popular children’s shows Arthur, Caillou, and The Busy World of Richard Scarry. She worked for a time in investor relations, and she did an MBA through Queen’s University.
After falling in love with a charismatic Italian-Canadian chef named Fabio Centini, she found herself back in Alberta; she and Fabio opened their restaurant in 2002.
Miller-Centini has always loved baking, so about three years ago, she stepped into the role of pastry chef—saving recipes, ordering eggs (120 a week) and butter (23 kilograms a week), overseeing staff.
Miller-Centini and her team crank out 4,000 cookies or so for an annual Banff Centre event. And, recently, they filled a table with treats for 150 people at a Calgary Economic Development gathering. But most of the cookies are given as Christmas presents to loyal Centini clients and other hungry diners who stop in for a meal during the holidays. “We send home boxes of them with our regulars,” Miller-Centini admits. “Everyone loves to have a cookie for dessert.”
160 8th Ave. S.E., 403-269-1600, centini.com.
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Because There is Only One Gustavo
Because There Is Only One Gustavo
Catherine Caldwell, Calgary Herald
Published: Friday, November 20, 2009
Our city will lose a good deal of its charm in the new year when Centini's beloved maitre d' retires to the West Coast. Better make that farewell reservation now.
Full disclosure: When I walk into Centini and lock eyes with Gustavo Yelamo, I melt into a puddle of zabaglione. The six-foot-tall, moustached Venezuelan flashes a dazzling smile, opens his arms, and steps towards me. He envelops my hand in a warm shake, and sometimes he hugs me. In those moments, I feel special, like I am the only person in the world. I will really miss that.
Yelamo is the maitre d' at Centini, but not for much longer. He and Nadia, his lovely wife of 35 years (apologies to Nadia for the above), will be retiring to the West Coast in January.
I'm sure I'm not the only one whose knees buckle upon entering the award-winning Stephen Avenue Italian restaurant. Yelamo just has that effect. He is the consummate professional, committed to and passionate about the hospitality industry. Tourism Calgary honoured his customer-centric approach in 2006 with a much-deserved Calgary White Hat award for best restaurant host. Yelamo still proudly sports the bestowed sterling silver pin on his suit lapel.
But Yelamo's baby browns were not originally set on the restaurant world. When he was "young and crazy," his passion was bullfighting. Growing up in Caracas, Yelamo felt drawn to the discipline, the artistry and elegance, the ritual of bullfighting. He started lessons at 16, and when he was 18, he thought he might attend bullfighting school in Spain. His parents, however, thought differently. "My parents never approved," he explains, "so they decided to send me away to school."
"Away" meant a year of high school in Canada--Montreal, to be exact. La Belle Ville may not have been the epicentre for toreadors, but it did have the cultural legacy of Expo 67 pavilions, where a young Venezuelan student could strum his cuatro, a four-stringed instrument resembling a ukulele. It was there that Yelamo met his future wife. Yelamo returned to Venezuela, where he enrolled in a college program in Tourism Management. Nadia soon followed, and the couple married in 1974. Ten years and a son later, they went back to Montreal for two months and then on to Calgary where Yelamo started work at the Delta Bow Valley Hotel.
In 1991, the couple opened the iconic Latin Corner restaurant in a small, drafty, former Dairy Queen on 4th Street S.W. Nadia cooked South American dishes, including her unsurpassed black-bean soup, and Yelamo, from his post out front, served her food while captivating diners with his smile and his cuatro. Over the years, they had several different locations for the Latin Corner and a few other projects. In 2004, Yelamo took his charm to Centini, where, until the end of the year, he will continue to be as much of a draw for discerning diners as is chef Fabio Centini.
But it doesn't have to be over between Yelamo and me--er, I mean, between Yelamo and his many Calgary fans. True, he is leaving his post at Centini. But he and Nadia will be only an hour-and-a-half flight away, running a new B & B (perhaps to be named G& G, for Gustavo & Guests) on an acreage near Comox.
And me? I'll be sneaking this issue of Swerve into the recycling before my husband gets up this morning. Shhhh. Don't anyone tell him.
Centini Restaurant & Lounge, 160 8th Ave. S.E., 403-269-1600, centini.com.
HASTA LA VISTA , GUSTAVO
Don't want to bid adios to Gustavo? No roblemo: Every day, WestJet he flies directly from Calgary to the Comox Valley Airport, just a 20-Minute drive from where Gustavo and Nadia's ocean-view B & B will be Located, in the community of Union Bay. They hope to be open by spring or early summer. Watch Centini's website for a link to their lodging.
© Calgary Herald 2009
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Where Magazine - Calgary Restaurant Guide (Italian)
This luxurious downtown restaurant was one of the city’s hottest tables when it opened in 2003. The restaurant’s modern Italian take on fine dining and the front end have only improved with age. Innovative and consistently well- executed food and friendly, professional service rule in this contemporary-style dining room, which is filled with an eclectic collection of important Canadian art, including pieces by Riopelle and Pellan.
The sleek main dining room is complemented by two additional rooms that can be closed off from the crowd, a feature which helps keep Centini a favorite haunt of the city’s corporate players seeking privacy. A stellar meal deserves a stellar wine, and Centini’s collection of labels is a match for any dish here.
All Dressed Up
Sweet and savory crepes offer a European take on pancakes
By Catherine Caldwell And John Gilchrist, Calgary Herald
March 1, 2009
This past week brought us Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday.
Recipe for Goat Cheese & Mushroom Crepes (published by Calgary Herald)
Goat Cheese and Mushroom Crepes is a cannelloni-style dish served with crepes instead of pasta.
Avenue Magazine - Customer Appreciation February 2009
At Centini, the food is decidedly Italian, but the quality of the service knows no boundaries.
Chances are, you’ll never have to lay a hand on a door handle or move a chair when you visit Centini . You can try to open the big glass-and-chrome door onto Stephen Avenue yourself, but maître d’ Gustavo Yelamo will likely beat you to the punch (and dazzle you with his Venezuelan smile at the same time).
You might be able to pull a chair out from your table, but sommelier Raul Rodas-Reyes will likely be there to do the job for you (and dazzle you with his Salvadoran smile).
Your only task will be to sit back, relax, select a few items from the food and wine menus (or not, if you’d rather let the pros do it for you) and find the energy to wield your own cutlery. That’s your assignment, should you decide to accept it.
The Yelamo/Rodas-Reyes duo handles restaurant service like none other in the city. They, and their expert co-workers, cocoon you in a blanket of care, allowing you to focus on the food, the wine and each other. Want a romantic evening? Centini might be the place.
But what’s this about a Latin American service tag team, you ask? Is Centini not an Italian restaurant? True, it is, but it’s a “modern” Italian one. And with that comes an international staff that is hired for their skill rather than for their heritage. So relax. Let them do their job. It’s remarkable when you find staff so committed to service. In many places, we just hope someone will be able to take our order and deliver something approximating our request in a timely fashion; at Centini, you can ignore those concerns and simply participate in the dining experience.
Soon, rich Italian scents will start to roll out of the open kitchen. Perhaps a waft of cream, black pepper and vodka being reduced into a Romanoff sauce for pasta; maybe the cheesy bite of gorgonzola melting into a creamy smooth glaze; or possibly the meaty bouquet of a 14-ounce veal chop being grilled and sided with an apple-sage jus. It’s an olfactory festival at Centini, a place to pluck aromas from the air as top-notch ingredients hit the stove. It’s almost as intoxicating as a trip through the long, long list of fine Italian wines.
To us, the minutes between arriving and eating at Centini are used for decompression. The tension escapes from our shoulders, our brows unfurrow and time slows down. Once the antipasto arrives, we’re removed from the hustle of Stephen Avenue outside, and when the main courses are delivered, time almost stops. By the end of the evening, we just want to curl up and snooze for a while.
Or at least have Yelamo and Rodas-Reyes drive us home.
But what about Fabio Centini, the man who created this eponymous restaurant? He is the uncompromising maestro who conducts the activity in the kitchen and throughout the dining room. He’s a smiling (and it’s an Italian smile this time) force of nature whose energy is larger than the room itself. Centini (his many fans just know him as Fabio) has been interested in food since he was a child and stood on a kitchen chair to knead pasta. He’s a stickler for quality, always on the lookout for primo meats and produce. He searches out ingredients across North America and Europe and works diligently to bring them to his Calgary restaurant. He’s unstoppable.
And irrepressibly positive. There are many who thought opening a restaurant in the Telus Convention Centre would never work. But he transformed the space into a successful restaurant with an injection of colour, aromas and the liveliness of his Italian cuisine.
He also added his commitment to quality and service, hired good staff and let them do their jobs. His dining room quickly became a place for business lunches and private dinners, and his banquet room became a sought-after location for events ranging from corporate functions to birthday parties.
Centini — the restaurant — now clicks along like the well-olive-oiled machine that it is. It’s a prime downtown Italian restaurant, a dining destination for locals and visitors alike. And a place where you may never have to lay a hand on a door handle.
Centini Restaurant and Lounge  is located in the Telus Convention Centre at 160 8th Avenue S.E.,
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Fabio Centini - Centini Restaurant and Lounge
From: Avenue Magazine, March 2003 Page: 41, By: Kim Vanderleer, Photographs by Beau Lark
Centini loves truffle oil and porcini, which he uses with meat and pasta. "The flavour it adds to a dish is so unique, so flavourful," he says of truffle oil. (A truffle is a fleshy, fruity fungus that grows underground and is a delicacy of the first order while porchini is an edible woodland mushroom with a smooth, meaty texture and pungent, woodsy flavour.)
Centini pours oil on the dish after cooking so the raw flavour of the oil (truffle oil, for example) is not inhibited by other flavours.
He cannot live without his J.A. Henckels knives. He loves the blade and uses the Five-Star Series.
He loves to cook, he looks forward to gearing up and getting in the kitchen. "It's go, go, go in there," he says while adding that a glass of wine usually helps.
Through a contact in Italy, Centini brings in white truffles from Alba (at $4,000 per kilogram). He makes a dish of pappardelle pasta (a wide noodle) mixed with butter, parmesan and raw egg yolk, and then shaves the white truffles over it. "Sometimes simplicity is unbelievable," he says. Salivating diners take note: White truffles are only available from October to early December.
Centini Restaurant Absolutely Fabio
From: Calgary Herald, Thursday, January 23, 2003, Page: E5, Section: Arts & Style, Byline: Kathy Richardier, Column: Dining Out
You will recall that chef Fabio Centini moved into the space that was, for one brief shining moment, Blonde.
I think many of us wondered about the location of this rather magnificently be-kitchened restaurant, at the heel end of Stephen Avenue in the Telus Convention Centre.
Well, wonder no more. Fabio seems to have hit the right note, made the space his, and is experiencing great success in the short time he's been there.
For one thing, he rouged the pale walls with a warm terra-cotta red that my "date" Dave and I agreed friendly-fies the formerly standoffish space. It works better in our chilly climate.
We were there on a Friday evening and Centini was busy -- and it wasn't the theatre crowd looking for a quick feed. It was regular diners like us looking for good food and a pleasant evening.
Another reason this location may be working well for Fab is the parking. You can now park in the convention centre parkade for free in the evening. Keeps the car warm, keeps you warm. Everyone is happy.
Centini offers a primarily Italian menu where you can find your gnocchi with gorgonzola cream and your veal scaloppini, if classic is your style. You can also find more contemporary takes on Italian, such as rack of lamb with pancetta and Calabrese olives, and an Asian influence tossed in from time to time: grilled salmon with lemongrass, for instance, and a complimentary "amuse-bouche" of tempura zucchini and carrot.
Presentation is lovely on large, pristinely white plates. Dave's grilled scallops were layered with tomato and greens, pierced with deep-fried vermicelli and garnished with a sliver of fried lotus root ($14). My spatchcocked quail was nestled in its potato nest atop warm greens, grilled sweet peppers over top ($13). Hungry Dave followed up with a half-order of pumpkin ravioli, surprisingly but happily sweet with a champagne and apple sauce, and a garnish of tart, crunchy, shredded apple ($12). A tender Brome Lake duck breast ($30) was paired with succulent figs and Madeira, offset with savoury roasted taters and asparagus.
Our desserts -- individual, light, pear-topped cheesecake ($7) and lemon tart in short crust ($8) -- disappeared faster than you'd have thought possible from two people who had just stuffed themselves very well. We all but licked the plates clean.
One caveat: We thought Fabio would do well to add more wine variety in the under-$50 range.
Centini is a warm, congenial place; we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and our young, charming and capable server, Emma.
Calgary Revamps its Beef and Beer Reputation
From: Business in Calgary, August 2002
Opening night at Centini's and it's a rare warm spring evening on Stephen Avenue Mall as people vie for the last few rays of sunshine on the large patio, clutch cocktails and knock back free food. The well dressed and the well fed are sampling from the freshly-cooked dishes, mostly contemporary Italian creations of Fabio Centini, chef and part owner of the new restaurant. The food is being dished up at the "theatre kitchen," a concept where back-of-the house action takes centre stage.
"I like to be involved with my customers," says the affable Centini, posing for an endless string of opening night "grip and grin" photos (translation: grip wait of nearest beautiful person and grin madly for wandering photographers). A seven-piece swing band is playing old show tunes, a few couples are dancing and, for the eighth time that night, someone gushes to me about how "Fab-a-lish" the new restaurant is.
Calgary diners, it seems, have evolved. "Calgarians are very adventurous and once they have trust in you they will try new things," says Centini, the executive chef at Montreal's LeLatini for 18 years before moving to Calgary, attracted by its rapid growth and favourable taxes. "I predict that in the next three to five years Calgary will be known as one of the top three food cities in Canada."
Avenue of Wine - Some of the best restaurant cellars in the city can be found along 8th Avenue
From: Calgary Sunday Sun, June 30, 2002
Fabio Centini, the exuberant owner of the new Centini restaurant, is standing on the top row of a ladder in his brand new, vertically-shaped, two-storey wine cellar.
He's filling his wine pouch with bottles of wine and smiling.
Mouton Rothschild, Marchesi di Barolo, Stag's Leap Fay Vineyard and Freemark Abbey Bosche Vineyard is what he culls from the top of his wooden racks.
"We're all over the map," he laughs.
"We're not just Italian or French, I like to be diversified."
In the little time that Centini's has been open, he's amassed a cellar with 1,600 bottles and 225 labels. It's hard to get a feel for the focus of the wine list other than to use Centini's words: "There's nice wines to discover."
One thing is clear - the prices are excellent, I'm looking at a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1995 and Centini's got a price tag of $450 on it. I saw it on a retailer's shelf two years ago for that price!
"I don't want to gouge the customer. If you charge too much it discourages people from buying it," he says.
Centini has a little bit of everything from seven different countries including Canada.
He says you need some of the big name wines such as Sassicaia, Tignanello, first-growth Bordeaux and big domaine Burgundy but you also have to have "great little gems here and there that don't cost a lot."
Centini says he likes to research the wines he buys on the Internet to discover new upcoming wines for his customers. The hot wines right now, he says, are coming from Australia and California.
Last Updated: Wednesday, January 20, 2016
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